Dozens hurt in crackdown on Myanmar mine protest

Security forces accused of using incendiary devices to break up protest at joint Chinese project

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 4:01am


Security forces fired water cannon and tear gas to break up a three-month protest against a vast copper mining project run by the powerful Myanmar military and its partner, a subsidiary of a Chinese arms manufacturer.

Yesterday's crackdown at the Letpadaung mine near the town of Monywa risks becoming a public relations and political fiasco for the reformist government of President Thein Sein, which has been touting its transition to democracy after almost five decades of repressive military rule.

Activists said at least 50 people had been injured and 23 were in hospital, some suffering burns after incendiary devices were hurled into their camps by the police. Media described the devices as "phosphorous bombs".

Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace laureate and a member of parliament, was going ahead with a visit to the site, where she intended to speak to the protesters about their grievances.

After decades of oppression, the Monywa mine has become a test of Myanmar's commitment to reform as protesters explore new-found freedoms, including a relaxation of laws on protests that took effect in July.

It also illustrates growing resentment towards Chinese companies that have expanded in recent years across the country.

Witnesses said truckloads of police arrived at six camps near the mine in the Sagaing region in Myanmar's northwest, where thousands have demonstrated against a US$1 billion expansion of the project and what they call the unlawful confiscation of more than 3,160 hectares of land.

Myo Thant, a member of the 88 Generation Students Group that long opposed military rule in Myanmar, who has been monitoring the situation in Monywa, said police had turned water cannon on the protesters and then some officers had used "these strange weapons".

"The stuff from these canisters got caught on the clothes and bodies of the victims. When they shook their robes to remove this stuff, fire started," he said.

But Zaw Htay, a spokesman for President Thein Sein, said the police had used only water cannon, tear gas and smoke bombs to disperse the protesters.

"No chemical weapons were used by the police to do their duty," he said.

The copper mine, Myanmar's biggest, is run by a unit of China North Industries Corp, a prominent weapons manufacturer, under a deal signed in June 2010 after Canada's Ivanhoe Mines pulled out in 2007.

It is backed by the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, which operated extensively under the military regime that ruled for almost half a century until 2011.

The Global Times, published by the People's Daily, said in an editorial yesterday it would be a "lose-lose situation for China and Myanmar if the project is halted".

"Only third parties, including some Western forces, will be glad to see this result," it said, blaming "some Westerners" and non-government organisations for instigating the protests.

"We must not give up on the project. Even if it is eventually stopped, Chinese companies should receive compensation according to the contract and international practice," it said.

The latest demonstration echoes fierce opposition to a Chinese-backed mega-dam which saw Myanmar president Thein Sein order the scheme's suspension last year in response to public anger.

Reuters, Agence-France-Presse, Associated Press